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The Iraq Report: Iran influences Iraq’s future relations with Saudi Arabia

Iran's weight of influence on Iraq's foreign policy has been highlighted this week [TNA]

Date of publication: 4 April, 2018

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In-depth: Tehran's tight grip on Iraq's political affairs is controlling the direction in which Baghdad takes its relationship with Saudi Arabia.
The Iraq Report is a weekly feature at The New Arab.


It is no secret that over the past two years Saudi Arabia has tried to improve ties with its troubled Iraqi neighbour to its north. Under King Salman bin Abdulaziz and his son and heir, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – better known by his initials MbS – Riyadh has stepped up its efforts to bring Iraq back into the Arab fold and away from Iran, a country that influences or controls almost every major decision-making institution in Iraq.

However, Iran is not going to allow its influence in Iraq to be curtailed by anyone, and least of all other regional powers. Iraq is the lynchpin for Iran’s regional agenda, without which it would be severely limited in how it projects power into Syria in aid of President Bashar al-Assad, or how easily it can supply transnational Shia militants including Hizballah in Lebanon. Pro-Iran Iraqi parties and militants have therefore been mobilising to thwart any Saudi charm offensives in Iraq.

PMF protest MBS visit to Iraq

The office of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced last week that Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the heir to the Saudi throne, was planning a visit to Iraq in the near future, but had not set a date.

This was met by strong opposition from quarters traditionally associated with the theocratic Iranian regime, who accused MBS of being a “war criminal”, citing the Saudi Arabian military intervention in Yemen. Saudi Arabia and Iran are backing opposite sides in the Yemeni war.

The Yemen conflict between the Saudi-led coalition and the Iran-backed Houthi rebels has seen more than 10,000 people killed, with hundreds of thousands living in terrible conditions, exacerbating an already precarious humanitarian situation.

The protesters branded MbS a 'war criminal' not only for Saudi’s intervention in Yemen, but also for allegedly facilitating Islamic State group terror attacks in Iraq

Protesters gathered following Friday prayers last week carrying banners bearing slogans critical of MBS and the Saudi Arabian authorities. According to the demonstrators, MbS was a “war criminal” not only for Saudi’s intervention in Yemen, but also for allegedly facilitating Islamic State (IS) group terror attacks in Iraq. This despite Saudi Arabia’s active participation in the US-led anti-IS coalition.

The protests appeared to have been arranged by militant groups linked to the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), a pro-Iran Shia paramilitary organisation. Demonstrators were carrying flags bearing the emblems of militias connected to the PMF, as well as Hizballah banners.

The Lebanese Shia outfit is closely linked to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and has been involved in training the PMF and providing “military advisers” to the Iraqi Shia paramilitaries.

Following the demonstrations, the Saudi Arabian foreign ministry released a statement on Saturday claiming that there was “no truth” to reports that MbS would visit Iraq.

Riyadh was keen on lauding the “positive developments” in its relationship with Baghdad, and described Saudi Arabia and Iraq as “two brotherly countries”.

Iraq and Saudi Arabia have recently been experiencing a warming of ties, much to Iran’s consternation. Diplomatic relations between the two countries have been tense for decades since Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, and even experienced continuing tensions due to growing Iranian influence since the US-led invasion in 2003. However, Riyadh has increased efforts to wean Baghdad off Tehran’s influence by restoring flights between the two countries last year after a 27-year hiatus, as well as inviting senior officials and dignitaries, including Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and firebrand Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

Riyadh was keen on lauding the 'positive developments' in its relationship with Baghdad, and described Saudi Arabia and Iraq as 'two brotherly countries'

Pro-Iran parties call for Iraqi ‘JASTA’ against Saudi

Despite Saudi Arabia’s efforts to build bridges with its Iraqi neighbours, however, Iran has been organising a concerted pushback to make sure that its role in Iraq remains unquestioned and unchallenged.

The New Arab’s Arabic language sister site reported pro-Iran Shia Islamist parties and their allies in the PMF were attempting to pass anti-Saudi legislation that would stunt the prime minister’s attempts at re-forging ties with Riyadh. The law has been dubbed an Iraqi version of “JASTA”, the so-called “Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act” adopted by the United States in 2016.

According to the report, Tehran-aligned lawmakers wanted to pass a law requiring Saudi Arabia to apologise for terrorist attacks allegedly perpetrated by Saudi citizens in Iraq, and to compensate the victims of terrorism. In exchange, Iraq would normalise relations with its oil-rich southern neighbour.

A representative for the “Conquest Alliance” representing the PMF in the upcoming elections on May 12 spoke to The New Arab and said Saudi Arabia had to pay for terrorist attacks conducted by Saudi citizens in Iraq since 2003. The PMF-linked spokesman also indicated that Saudi Arabia should no longer call for the release of its citizens from Iraqi prisons.

Dhafir al-Ani, a senior leader in the Iraqi Forces Alliance, blasted these pro-Iran parties as saboteurs. “Whenever Arab nations want to improve their ties with Iraq, armed groups – and especially those with ties to Iran – make an appearance and start making threats,” Ani told The New Arab.

Criticising the links these groups had with Iran and claiming they were acting hypocritically, Ani added: “Why didn’t any of these militias object to Iranian Vice President Ishaq Jihangiri’s visit… to Baghdad? They all welcomed him and treated him positively.”

According to the report, Tehran-aligned lawmakers wanted to pass a law requiring Saudi Arabia to apologise for terrorist attacks allegedly perpetrated by Saudi citizens in Iraq, and to compensate the victims of terrorism

Although Saudi Arabia is currently unable to steer Iraq away from Iranian interests, Tehran views any such attempts as a serious threat to its regional strategy.

Iraq is used as a major hub for its land bridge linking Iran to the Mediterranean. Men and weapons often pass through Iraq on their way to Syria, and Iraq itself is a healthy source of recruits into the IRGC’s many sectarian Shia militant organisations. It is therefore unsurprising to see pro-Iran groups moving against Saudi Arabian interests and attempting to sabotage any deepening of ties between Baghdad and Riyadh.

Sectarian Shia militias turn Baghdad countryside into ‘gulag’

The New Arab reported last week that the PMF had effectively turned the district of Tarmiyyah on the outskirts of Baghdad into a “gulag”, as local Sunni Arabs feel they are being subjected to a sectarian cleansing campaign to effect demographic change in and around the Iraqi capital.

Tarmiyyah forms part of a region known as the “Baghdad Belt”, a collection of rural, largely agricultural communities that surrounds Baghdad and is predominantly inhabited by the Sunni Arabs. It has been subjected to extensive and heavy-handed “security operations” by government-aligned militant groups, including the PMF which was recently recognised as a formal part of the Iraqi armed forces.

Locals complained of arbitrary arrests, with some detainees turning up dead days or weeks later bearing signs of torture and usually gunshot wounds to the head in execution-style killings.

Locals complained of arbitrary arrests, with some detainees turning up dead days or weeks later bearing signs of torture and usually gunshot wounds to the head in execution-style killings

PMF militants and Iraqi soldiers were also accused of breaking into people’s homes and conducting excessive searches of private property, including regular night raids that turn up no terror suspects or evidence. Locals are often robbed of their possessions, leading many to decide to leave Tarmiyyah and relocate.

Last Tuesday, Iraqi forces sealed off the entire district for the third time since the start of 2018, leading local residents to describe their home as a “gulag”. Iraqi forces stated that the reason behind these closures was to prepare for imminent counterterrorism operations. Yet locals complain that they have not seen or heard of any results coming from these operations, and suspect the government is attempting to make their lives intentionally unbearable to force them to leave.

The allegation of sectarian cleansing is not new. Tarmiyyah is on the road to the Shia-dominated district of Kadhimiyyah in Baghdad, and also lies near transportation links to Samarra where more Shia holy shrines are located. By cleansing the Baghdad Belt of Sunni Arabs, sectarian militias hope to create a homogeneously Shia zone around the capital and on routes to holy cities and shrines.

However, such behaviour is what allowed extremists like IS to gain a foothold in Iraq in the first place. By attacking people’s livelihoods, forcing them out of their homes, kidnapping and murdering their loved ones, and destroying any semblance of normality in their lives, these sectarian militias are opening the door to future violence. The Iraqi government could be sat on a ticking time bomb right on Baghdad’s doorstep.


The Iraq Report is a weekly feature at The New Arab.


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